Friday, January 10, 2014


In the beginning this little game of thinking about “inside the circle versus outside the circle” was a theological school idea to distinguish between people who are faithful believers of a specific religious system versus those who are studying the system in a methodical way.  Such a distinction never occurs to some people, since institutions in general require faithfulness rather than reflection and most people are never in a setting where the history of religion or the philosophy of religion are valued and active, the places where religions are questioned and compared.  To most people "religions" are just one big blob.

Lately another one of these inside/outside circles has developed about how minds work.  It’s possible to see the operating centers of the brain, which are both more powerful and more assorted than anyone suspected, but there are still people who use ideas produced by introspection in the 19th century -- Freud and all that.  This “conversation of reconciliation” is about the psychoanalyst in the circle of the treatment room being challenged by those who see people as organic computers.  But it can go the other way:  neuroscientists as the true believers, challenged by “talking cure” masters of great skill and effectiveness.  My window on this is a listserv about discussion of the arts, which tends to ally itself with the psychoanalysts, their dreams and histories, but is also open to "hard" science.  

Even in this small Montana town people are beginning to be aware of neuro-theory because they are open to medicine, not so much in terms of science as through the technology of raising crops, livestock and families.  Too many people with concussions.  Technology as explained by salesmen and neighbors are the mediators between promotion and practice.  At one time the church was also a mediator between being secretive and defensive and opening up to possibility.

This TEDtalk came along just in time to offer a vivid metaphor.  This composer is relating music to GPS locations, a response to what is there nearby.  He plays a bit of what you might hear if you were wearing the equipment and moved in and out of the location of a specific landscape feature, whether a monument or a bridge or a view. 

Hays and Ryan Holladay 

So to reconcile being inside the circle of the believer (hearing the music) with being outside the circle (not hearing the music but being at the GPS spot) I suggest that a brain runs a musical system that uses the sensorium as a GPS technology.  The brain tells you where you are and runs the “score” of memory, perception, intention, and so on.  If you see the brain operation from outside via some kind of scanner, it might look like the score of a very complex symphony.  The brain itself works through connections, the connectome, and it is these pulsing messages that are “thought.”  The cells don’t move around, but the pattern of connection “chords” is very fluid and rhythmic among them.

As always, if the goal is clinical -- to help someone -- the best results come from both/and, using the technology of sampling blood, doing brain scans, trying various therapies, WITH the kind of manipulation that is done through the person's own thought, powerful enough to cause from within chemical and muscular changes that can be a source of both diagnosis and management.

In “blog” (web-log) fashion, I can also recommend this story of a whole town drawing a circle of protection.  (I’m really getting off on Aeon.)

We draw these circles of thought and place, sometimes intending them as protection and sometimes as embracing others.  What counts is how we go about it and how we manage the boundary.  The boundary of our bodies is our skin.  The boundary itself can receive a combination of technology and art, as in this following article, which just happened to turn up in Aeon alongside the previously linked story.

Towards the end of this article is an account of tattooing women who have had surgery for breast cancer so that they have scars, indentations, and -- of course -- missing breasts.  When I was in high school my mother’s life was hit hard by a radical mastectomy.  She said she felt like a skinned rabbit, and indeed the flesh was removed down to her ribs on one side of her chest and up beneath her upper arm.  She was a farm girl, not one to primp and pose, but even when I was little and intrigued by her gnarled and yellowed big toe that a horse had stomped, she became offended, and chased me away. She felt that her eyelashes were stubby, so once on her birthday I bought some good false eyelashes and put them on her for a luncheon with her sisters.  They knew something was different, but couldn’t figure out what it was.  She gloated for weeks.  She did have a little vanity.

I’m not sure she would have accepted the sort of tattooing in this story, since she was fairly conventional, but I have a feeling that if she had, it would have been transformative. Roxx, the tattooist, collaborates with her living canvases.  She describes a tattoo for a woman with surgical scars. 

“The swirling piece follows the curve of the left breast and cradles it, flowing from the left shoulder around and under the right side until the jagged scar brazenly interrupts it.  . . .  I looked at the flow on her chest. This was like her flow of life, and where the scar cuts in it’s like this break where this happened, but then life continues.  She said she wanted something that mildly resembled a dove because she had this loving connotation with doves and her grandma . . . and that’s what came out. To me it’s a little bit like a dove’s wing.”  

In-skin, skin, out-skin.  Claim your skin.  Make that surface say something.

Henna painting is a decorative art for hands and feet in some cultures.  Locally, a sociologist got caught in a rez bomb scare, pretty common in the spring when the kids are longing to escape.  They used to be sent home, but now are confined to a bus until the school can be swept -- just in case.  The sociologist was fascinated that a few girls spent the time drawing with ballpoints on each others’ hands and forearms.  In my day they tattooed with sewing needles -- maybe they still do.  It's a natural impulse.

Once in a while I think about making some “tats” on myself with Sharpies though I don’t do it.  I’d use colors to make tiger stripes and leopard spots.  Is a tattoo a camouflage or a marker of distinction?  Is the boundary of skin protecting the inside or the outside?  Is a religious faith a disguise or a truth?  Can we hear your music or are you silent?  Are you real or are you fiction?  Where is the edge of the circle?  In-skin/skin/out-skin.

Here’s a classic poem I retrieved through Googling:

“Outwitted” by Edwin Markham (1852-1940)

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Orerry by Cyg.X1

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